Will the Impala Be the Hit That GM Needs?

2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ. Photo credit: General Motors Co.

General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) is in the midst of a push to introduce a slew of new products in the U.S. over the next couple of years. The latest entry: an all-new Chevrolet Impala sedan.

It's a critical moment for GM. This batch of new cars and trucks are the first fruits of its new product development system, which was overhauled in the wake of the company's 2009 bankruptcy and restructuring.

Some of the first to emerge have been really good, like the Cadillac ATS sedan that was launched last year to strong reviews. But what the new improved GM hasn't really had – yet – is a bona-fide mass-market hit product.

Is the new Chevy Impala the car that will change that?

A sharp replacement for a very tired old model
Monday marked the official beginning of production of the all-new 2014 Impala, which will begin appearing at dealers later this spring. With sharp, assertive styling and an elegant interior, it looks to be a huge improvement over its predecessor.

It had better be. That predecessor is one of GM's oldest models, a car that has sold mostly to rental-car fleets in recent years. About 70% of the outgoing Impala's sales were to fleets, GM officials have said, with just 30% to retail buyers.

GM is hoping that the new Impala will reverse that trend, because retail sales are far more profitable than sales to rental-car companies. Certainly the new Impala looks like a strong entry – but GM's recent track record with mainstream sedans is a mixed one.

The Malibu didn't impress, but the Impala must
The Impala's smaller sibling, the midsized Chevy Malibu sedan introduced last year, hasn't exactly set the sales charts on fire. While it looked like a solid contender on paper, reviews have been mixed – and its sales numbers haven't been close to those of the cars that lead its segment.

In truth, the Malibu looks like something of a halfhearted effort when compared with rivals like Ford's (NYSE: F  ) striking new Fusion, not to mention Toyota's (NYSE: TM  ) class-leading Camry, which is selling at about twice the Malibu's pace.

The Impala has to do better than that. For years, GM got along with models that were just "good enough", and paid the price when its profits were eroded by the heavy discounts it needed to keep sales going. If post-bailout GM is really going to realize its potential, its new products – all of them – have to be at least as good as the best in their classes.

For the Impala, that's a tall order. The two cars that dominate the full-sized sedan segment, the Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon, are both polished, popular entries. The Impala will have to be very good to draw buyers.

For GM, the good news is that early reviews on its new Impala have been positive. But will buyers follow? We'll find out.

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